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Monday, May 23, 2022

Patton’s Midyear Review: Laurie Talks First Months, Goals

The Middlebury Campus sat down with Laurie L. Patton to discuss her first few months at Middlebury as the College’s 17th president. In this profile, Patton discusses what has surprised her about Middlebury, what her first days were like after her appointment and what she hopes to focus on in the coming months. 

Middlebury Campus (MC)What have you accomplished during your first few months as President that you are proud of and what do you hope to accomplish or focus on during the coming months?

Laurie Patton (LP): So I’m not sure whether “accomplishment” is quite the right word, since I’m still just getting to know the community and presidencies usually make their mark over the long haul, after a period much longer than seven months. And I prefer to think of what we have accomplished together, since presidents don’t actually have much unilateral power! Those two caveats aside, I am proud of so many things we have already done as a community: the first year of our new faculty governance system at Middlebury College; the great work faculty at Monterey have done on their new governance system; the second year of our new Board of Trustees governance system; the faculty vote this fall on a new AAL requirement which was started by students; the creation of Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury; the Disability Advisory Group; the Task force on Stress; all the great work that has come from faculty and students and staff on mindfulness practices and developing resilience. These are all about community practices that change culture over time, where we communicate better with each other and enhance quality of Middlebury life.

MC: Is there one thing that hasn’t lived up to your expectations or that has surprised you?

LP: The pleasant surprise has been how collaborative and constructive people are. I knew this about the Middlebury community, but the depth and extent of it has been truly a joy to encounter. On the down side, I also worry that we have too many bureaucratic layers. Even though we are a newly complex organization, I think we need to ask whether we are already too complex sometimes. I am greatly looking forward to the strategic planning process to think about this issue across the Middlebury landscape.

MC: The national conversation surrounding racial issues has touched upon the role of institutions in protecting students from being offended. To what extent do you think Colleges should protect their students from potentially offensive situations? Is this possible? Beneficial? What is the distinction between protecting and censoring? At what point is freedom of speech in danger?

LP: As you know this question of inclusivity is a major priority for me. We can and should discuss in constructive ways how we handle situations of offense. We are just now putting in place the bias incident protocol, which means that there are procedures for when these incidents occur. And we need to uphold our community standards of conduct and speech that are already in place, which specifically emphasize that we should work to report and change unwelcome behavior before the environment becomes difficult or hostile for those affected. I also think that the opposition between free speech and inclusivity is a false one. We become a more inclusive community through the exercise of free speech. That also means that we try to create resilient spaces, where all members of our community have the skills to deal with an offense when it occurs. Because offenses occur in both small and large scales, and we are also dealing with structural bias that involves the slower process of systemic change, multiple solutions are needed: protocols for bias incident reporting; resilience training; constant review of bias in our systems and constant encouragement toward constructive engagement.

MC: In light of recent events involving racial injustice issues across college campuses, what does a more inclusive Middlebury look like to you?

LP: I would love to see students and faculty and staff become less afraid of engaging constructively with each other on difficult topics. That alone is going to take a lot of time. I would also love to see better interaction in classrooms and on athletic fields, so that we can talk more comfortably across differences. I don’t think any campus has it right yet, but I think we need to be more invitational and develop a spirit of hospitality in spaces where we have been less welcoming and less mindful of historically underrepresented points of view.

MC: A recent New York Times op-ed titled “Rethinking College Admissions” raised concerns about the admissions processes at the most selective colleges. In your opinion, are current admissions standards flawed and, if so, what can Middlebury and its peer institutions do to mitigate the issue?

LP: Middlebury is a proud member of the Coalition for Affordability and Access that was referred to in the report. I think turning the tide on the ways in which we engage applicants is essential, and we will be working closely with other members to see how we can work collectively on this issue. That includes serious consideration of many of the recommendations that have now been put forward, and focusing less on the resume and the “credentializing culture” and more on the transformative experiences of the individual and that individual’s capacity to transform the college community they enter. We also need to do better work with families, particularly those from low-income households, who may not think more actively about the possibilities of a Middlebury education. The situation all colleges find themselves in is this: we both embrace and revile by the rankings system and the system of building credentials. I think we need to focus as much on the life-script as we do on the transcript, and that’s going to mean both outreach to different communities as well as a more holistic evaluation system of our applicants. I think our admissions office does a great job with that, but I have been impressed by how they are always looking to do better.

MC: You carry a wealth of experiences, illustrated through your extensive curriculum vitae and long list of honors, awards and accomplishments. Is there a particular feat that has stood out to you and marked a defining moment in your career?

LP: Yes. I think it was the moment I decided not to go into the corporate world to become a conflict mediator, but instead stayed in the academy and use my conflict mediation skills there. I realized then that higher education is one of the oldest and most fascinating forms of collective activity we have in civilization, beginning with the systems I study in ancient India. And that committing my life to that, and using conflict mediation skills in that context, was the most important work I could do as a scholar, teacher and leader.

MC: Considering the presidential search process had been long and private, the announcement of your appointment came very suddenly. What were the moments like before, during and after the huge announcement?

LP: The last 10 days before the announcement were harrowing. I was trying to keep a lid on the gossip, so that both wonderful institutions of Duke and Middlebury could be protected. My most powerful memory was on the day of the announcement. My question was: can I come back home to New England having become the person I’ve become? As I walked up the hill with Marna Whittington, our head of the Board of Trustees, and Dave Donahue, my assistant, I watched everyone stream into the building to hear the announcement. And all of them were surrounded by the unique beauty of the campus. That moment was deeply moving. I felt like I was being greeted and welcomed home by family I hadn’t met yet. Someone said, as I left the building, “The strength of the hills is hers also!” and tears came to my eyes. After the announcement we very quickly began the hard work of getting to know the community.

MC: What advice did our former president, Ron Liebowitz, share with you that has stood out to you?

LP: Ron and I have very similar energy levels and perspectives on how forward-looking higher education needs to be. We talked about many topics and had a really smooth transition, and I think his perspective on keeping this creative energy alive at Middlebury was most helpful. The continuity of vision was a great blessing.

MC: What are lessons you have learned from the students of the College so far?

LP: Middlebury students are extraordinary and I have been spending a lot of time with them. They want to be creative and they want the College to get out of the way and help them do that. I have learned about next steps on sustainability; I have learned how they want to push us on more inclusive practices and I frequently feel that if I ask students to help I am going to get extraordinary responses. I am always cheered up when I spend time with students.

MC: Favorite memory or activity from your first J-term?

LP: One scavenger hunt team crafted a wonderful response to the presidential challenge, where they found a new community or artistic use for several of the scientific instruments in our special collections. It was fabulous! And then the next day I got all the sweaters that different teams had knit for Padma and Suka, my great Pyrenees dogs. Science, arts, community and sweaters – as they say in Yiddish: what’s not to like?


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